In a nationwide poll of Kyrgyzstan in February, an overwhelming 95% said that corruption is a big problem for the central Asia country.

Despite this, the Kyrgyz people are optimistic. 66% in the same survey believed that the country is headed in the right direction. The country last year launched a national vision called Taza Koom, meaning ‘transparent society’, to use technology to transform the economy into a “digital silk road” hub and build trust with citizens.

Technology will play a huge role in tackling corruption, believes Talant Sultanov – an architect of Taza Koom and advisor to former Prime Minister Sapar Isakov. “The officials prone to corrupt practices and the interest groups realise how digitalisation and transparency could put a brake on their way of doing things,” he tells GovInsider.

Corruption at the highest levels

The government hopes that secure online services will help reduce graft. A “Digital Kyrgyzstan” will “minimise corruption”, according to the Taza Koom strategy.

Kyrgyzstan has chosen to import tried and tested approaches from elsewhere, instead of building new digital platforms on its own. Estonia’s e-Governance Academy is helping it build a central platform for the government to share information across agencies. The Kyrgyz platform is based on Estonia’s own system called X-Road, which helped the country “drastically” reduce corruption, according to Arvo Ott, CEO of the e-Governance Academy.

The platform now allows Kyrgyz agencies to securely share information with each other and build digital services around citizens’ needs. The government is using this to deliver 26 government services online and is creating a central website that brings together government services from different ministries.

In another big step to increase citizens’ trust in political institutions, Kyrgyzstan is trialling biometrics in its voting system, according to the country’s digital chief Eduard Turdaliev. The system registers voters through fingerprints and facial recognition and votes are counted online to reduce the chances of rigged ballots. It has been tested in municipal elections, and then again in parliamentary and the 2017 presidential elections.

Digital Silk Road

A key goal for Taza Koom is to kickstart the country’s economy. “We are a small, landlocked, mountainous country, with limited natural resources. Traditional economic development programs might not be the best option,” Sultanov says.

While wages are low, transport costs are a burden for traditional goods. However, “digital goods and services do not have these costs”, he adds. Kyrgyzstan wants to become a connected hub for digital entrepreneurs and the data industry.

The country must first address major infrastructure issues, especially in rural areas. “Unfortunately, internet in Kyrgyzstan is very costly, slow and of poor quality,” Sultanov says. Without affordable and reliable access to the internet, residents will not be able to reap the benefits of digital businesses or even of a more efficient and less corrupt digital government.

At the same time, the country’s education system needs to be adapted to ensure people are digitally literate and able to use the new tools. One project provides content to people who still don’t have access to reliable internet. “Our experts built a device that stores and distributes content from sources such as the Khan Academy and Wikipedia in the local language, even without active internet connection,” Sultanov says.

The new technologies can also help to overcome traditional role models in society. “We believe that by receiving knowledge and skills, girls – particularly in rural communities – would be empowered and would have more opportunities,” he says.

The country has show some improvements on global standards. In the 2018 United Nations digital government rankings, Kyrgyzstan has moved up six ranks to 91st place, moving from a ‘middle’ to ‘high’ e-government development index.

The country can also draw inspiration from its neighbour Kazakhstan, which has moved up 25 ranks on the UN’s e-participation ranking. It is also among two middle income countries that are now classified as having ‘very high’ e-government performance. The other 38 countries in this group are high-income ones.

Kyrgyzstan is starting its digital transformation from a low bar, but its civil servants should take inspiration from how optimistic citizens are about the future of their country.